The History of My Adversities

It was Abelard, of course, who came up with this nifty title for his memoirs—after he had dared to love, after they had cut them off. Not that my own literary glands, after several amputations, have ever failed to grow back completely—like the arms of a mutilated starfish.

Oh, don’t worry: I’m not going to detain you with an excruciating, blow-by-blow history of every one of my literary scars. Fortunately, just one little episode will give you all the others in a nutshell. For there are some events in one’s life which seem merely unpleasant at the time but which, when viewed from the higher vantage point of retrospect, can be seen to have had all the dark and ugly features of an omen.

And it had all started out so well. But no, that’s not entirely so. At first there had been a number of untidy miscarriages—pyrotechnic phrases that hadn’t germinated into sentences, lovely but frail sentences that had refused to grow up into healthy paragraphs, the pages of disjointed descriptions, the pointless mutterings of embryonic characters, the stillborn hands and legs and feet of stories. And these miscarriages themselves had come after the portentous thirteen years of preparation—which included all the time I frittered away in college and the nine arduous years it took for me to get the Ph.D. in English that looks so very nice on stationery. I had always seen my schooling as preparation for the day when (like Pinocchio transformed into a real live boy) I would finally begin in earnest to write fiction. But let’s just agree to skip over the quixotism of my schooling and the frustrations of my apprenticeship and get to the joyous day when my Muse had finally given birth to a little story that I fondly thought might be worthy of publication.

Of course every writer (and consequently every writer’s family and friends) must eventually contend with the thumbscrews and racks of the publishing world. But here’s one for the record books.

I found the ad in the back pages of a magazine: I can’t say for sure which magazine it was, but very likely one of those shameless periodicals that thrive by peddling hope to desperate writers. The ad announced the birth of a wonderful, new literary quarterly that generously welcomed submissions from previously unfledged authors. As soon as I saw the ad, I knew that my prayers had been answered. Oh, this new quarterly and I were a perfect match: our literary stars would rise together.

I could not wait. No, immediately—and flawlessly—I typed my brilliant new story on pristine, heavyweight sheets of ivory paper. And now for the first time ever in my life I prepared the dreadful self-addressed, stamped envelope (of use only in the unlikely event of a rejections), licked the glue and folded back the metal fasteners on my manila packet, drove into town, whispered a supplication to the Muse and dropped my first, precious gift to literature down the chute at the local post office.

But it was months and months before my answer came. No one but a writer walks up to a mailbox in such an agony of hope and fear. What was this? Oh—oh my, it was not—not—my own self-addressed envelope! Savagely, I tore it open. Could the news, then, possibly be good? My eyes raced down the letter and picked out the words: “accepted your story for publication”! Suddenly the Nobel Prize loomed larger. The letter was smartly signed in a ballpoint flourish by a woman whom I will call, for the present, Deirdre. And beneath Deirdre’s impressive signature I read her even more impressive title: Editor.

In the coming weeks I took every occasion I possibly could to mention my good fortune to my friends—especially to those doubting friends who thought that my vocation was impractical and had, themselves, placed safer bets on dentistry and law. In the lull that followed their exciting news of tooth decay and mortgages, I would find a way to say that I understood that it was actually quite difficult to get a story published—as I had done. And by now, of course, Deirdre was not just “the editor,” but “my editor”—as in the phrases “my editor said how much she liked my story” and “my editor will be sending me the galleys soon.”

But the galleys did not come soon. Weeks, months passed. At first I told my friends that the delay was normal. Like a Piper Cub lined up behind other airplanes on a runway, my little story simply had to wait its turn to take off and soar into the blue. And in the meantime—until that happy moment came—I could impress my friends with reports on the work-in-progress of my first novel, whose dazzling success was guaranteed by the fact that my protagonist was also the hero of my short story.

More months passed, and it was now well beyond a year since I had heard from Deirdre. But by now I hardly noticed how long I had waited: for all this while my new hope, my splendiferous novel had been growing steadily . . . like a cancer. In fact so much time had gone by that, at first, I did not recognize the name of the magazine embossed on the left-hand corner of the envelope. But then recognition dawned—and I felt a brief, wild flutter of joyous expectation.

Oh yes, it was my story. But not deliciously printed on the pages of a magazine. No, these were the very pages I had sent so long ago—only now they were no longer perfectly flat and ivory-white. The paper now was sallow and buckled by a lengthwise ridge. On the first page there was visual proof that someone in a rubber-soled boot had stepped on it.

And there was a letter, too. The letter-writer announced that she had some terrible news to tell me. Deirdre, it seems, had been driving in her station wagon when she had attempted to pass over some train tracks. Unfortunately, she had not driven fast enough to beat out the oncoming train. In the months following Deirdre’s tragic accident, the letter-writer had herself taken over at the magazine and steered it in an entirely different editorial direction. Only recently, thinking to clear away old business, she had gone to Deirdre’s closed-up house and rummaged through her papers, which is how come she had found my story—which she now was returning to me.

I will not avail myself of the well-worn cliché that “I could not have made this up.” Because I very definitely could have made this up: actually I have made up far better. Nonetheless, the events I have reported here are, factually, the truth.

And would you like to know the name of my little, stillborn story? It was entitled “Waterloo.”

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Full List of Essays
“A Noble Apology” • How I received an apology for the Spanish Inquisition (anthologized in Travelers’ Tales Spain)

“Allegro Furioso” • An introduction to my impossible grandparents and why Rodgers and Hammerstein wrote a musical about them (published in Columbia Magazine)

“Silver Bullets” • How I disturbed my great-grandmother’s ashes, didn’t meet Oscar Hammerstein and became the Lone Ranger.

“This Pen for Hire” • A lament upon the indignities suffered by an unpublished writer that, ironically, earned me my first publication—in The Washington Post Book World.

“The History of My Adversities” • The so-help-me-God true and lugubrious story of my first bloody taste of the perversities of the publishing world.

“Château d’If”A tribute to the tiny prison where I pen my deathless prose.

“Berlin Memories” • How I was frightened and tested by a stranger in a trenchcoat.

Just Who, Exactly, Is the Master? • An homage to my superlative cat. (Published in Westchester Magazine)

And click here to read my essays exclusively on the topic of TITULOMANIA (my love of titles).